Blackshaw, Basil (1932–2016), artist, was born on 20 July 1932 in Glengormley, Co. Antrim, the youngest of seven surviving children of Samson (Sam) Blackshaw, a groom and gamekeeper from England, and his wife Edith (née Clayton), the daughter of a gamekeeper, from Coalisland, Co. Tyrone. Blackshaw spent his childhood in rural Boardmills, Lisburn, Co. Down, where his father maintained a stable of thoroughbred horses and bred beagles for hunting. Blackshaw learned to ride horses aged three or four and joined the local hunt from a young age. His father painted in his spare time, dabbling in oils and water colours and encouraged his young son to do likewise. By the age of ten Blackshaw’s paintings, usually of horses, were being commissioned by locals and family friends.
EDUCATION AND EARLY CAREER
Blackshaw attended the nearby Cargycroy primary school before enrolling at the Methodist College in Belfast, where his burgeoning artistic talent came to notice. Aged sixteen he commenced studies at the Belfast College of Art (1948–51), where the respected landscape artist Romeo Toogood (1902–66) had recently been appointed master of painting and drawing and who exerted considerable influence over the development of Blackshaw’s early style. In 1950 Blackshaw was among three winners of the outstanding student of the year prize in the Ulster Arts Club’s annual exhibition.
Completing his studies in 1951, he was awarded a scholarship by the Council for Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) to visit Paris, where he encountered the work of two of his strongest life-long influences: the French painter Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) and the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti (1901–66). (Always open about his influences, he also found significant inspiration in the works of Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980), English landscape artist Alan Reynolds (1926–2014), J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851) and Francis Bacon (qv), among others). Blackshaw next took a part-time role assisting Toogood at the Belfast College of Art, as well as doing set design work for the Lyric Theatre. He had little interest in teaching, however, and the story goes that when a heavy snow prevented him from getting to the college one day, he simply never returned.
Blackshaw’s painting career got off to a strong start. In September 1952 he exhibited jointly with Martin MacKeown, with whom he shared a studio, at the CEMA gallery at Donegall Place, Belfast. The following year he exhibited three paintings in a ‘Young Contemporaries’ exhibition, sponsored by the British Arts Council and hosted by the British Society of Artists in London, which sought to promote emerging new talent. Blackshaw was among a smaller cohort of the exhibition’s artists whose work was selected to go on a small tour in Britain. He displayed both his landscape (‘Blue road’) and portrait talents (‘James Joyce number one’) at the Ulster Arts Club spring exhibition in 1953, while the Ulster Museum acquired one of his best-known early works, the starkly striking ‘The field’, helping to bring him to wider attention. In 1954 he exhibited at the inaugural show of the Association of Past Pupils and Staff at the Belfast College of Art. At the age of just twenty-two Blackshaw held his first solo show in February 1955 at the Belfast Museum and Art Gallery, featuring thirty-six paintings. The keeper of art and deputy director of the museum, poet John Hewitt (qv), was an early advocate and wrote glowingly of the young artist in the show programme. Two years later Hewitt wrote a substantial essay for the inaugural edition of Belfast Lyric Players’ literary magazine, Threshold, further championing Blackshaw’s work. Blackshaw held his second solo show in 1956 at the CEMA gallery, featuring forty-eight monotone artworks. From 1955 he exhibited frequently at the Royal Ulster Academy (RUA) annual show and presented works at the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) in Dublin in 1958–61. His ‘Crucifixion: Dromore’, which places the crucified Christ in the landscape of Northern Ireland, was included in a religious-themed exhibition at the Tate in London in 1958.
From early in his career Blackshaw’s work focused on country scenes and themes: landscapes, farm buildings and animals, initially painted in an early expressionist style. Throughout his long career he was regularly labelled a ‘rural’ artist. He lived only briefly in Belfast, preferring life in the countryside, where he kept horses, trained greyhounds for racing and attended cockfights. Adept at capturing form, gesture and likeness in animals and poultry, fellow artist Brian Ferran praised Blackshaw’s ability to capture ‘the distinctive stance of an individual horse and the appearance and movement of each and every hound in a pack’ (Ferran,1999). These skills were also evident in his figurative paintings, portraiture, and later nudes.
Blackshaw married Australian artist Anna Ritchie in 1959, and the couple had a daughter (artist Anya Waterworth) in 1962. The newlyweds spent time living in a barrel wagon at Ardglass, Co. Down, before settling near the village of Ravernet, Co. Down. Throughout the 1960s Blackshaw continued to exhibit regularly in Northern Ireland, including in solo shows in Belfast at the CEMA gallery (1961), Studio 25 (1962) and the Arts Council Gallery (1964). In 1965 his work was included in a group show titled ‘Four Ulster painters’ at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, alongside that of his wife Anna Ritchie, sculptor Deborah Brown (b. 1927) and painter T. P. Flanagan (qv).
The decade that followed was one of great personal difficulty. Blackshaw’s marriage ended in divorce in 1972, and he subsequently struggled with bouts of alcoholism. He then met Helen Falloon who would be his partner for the rest of his life, and the couple settled in a secluded corner of rural Antrim within sight of Lough Neagh. He continued to work and exhibit throughout the 1970s, primarily in Belfast, opening the decade with a solo show at the Bell Gallery (1970) and subsequently at the Tom Caldwell Gallery (1973, 1975 and 1977). He also took part in the Rosc ’71 exhibition in Dublin. He was honoured in 1974 with a mid-career retrospective presented by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and that same year was included in a show at the Watergate Gallery, Washington DC. He took part in the 1975 IELA exhibition and in 1976 was awarded an RUA silver medal. Blackshaw was elected an associate of the RUA in 1977, becoming an academician in 1981. Despite these successes, by the end of the 1970s Blackshaw was struggling for inspiration and began experimenting with his painting style and approach to colour, continuing to do so into the following decade.
In 1985 a fire destroyed Blackshaw’s studio, which was in a converted outbuilding next to his home. He lost many works, along with art materials and various keepsakes, including a treasured painting of a horse by his father. Despite those losses, the fire offered Blackshaw the opportunity to take his work in a new direction. Entering his ‘second period’, his painting style became looser and more gestural, and his use of colour evolved. He began using vibrant and incongruous colour schemes in natural scenes, earning a reputation as a bold colourist. Writer and art historian Brian McAvera described Blackshaw’s output during the late 1980s and 1990s as a ‘dialogue between representation and abstraction’ (McAvera, 2002). Blackshaw also began working on a much larger scale, and while landscapes and animals remained his mainstay, he produced many highly praised nude studies of his long-time model and friend, Jude Stephens. The David Kendriks Gallery in Dublin held a solo exhibition of his new work in 1987, and the Kerlin Gallery, Dublin, did likewise in 1990. His work also featured in Rosc ’88 (Dublin), and in 1989 he held a joint exhibition with his long-time friend Cherith McKinstry (1928–2004) at Warrenpoint Narrow Water Gallery.
At the request of his friend Brian Friel (qv), during the mid-1980s and early 1990s Blackshaw provided poster artwork for Derry’s Field Day Theatre Company productions. These included Seamus Heaney’s (qv) ‘The cure at Troy’, Friel’s ‘Translations’ and Tom Paulin’s ‘The riot act’, among others. In 1995 the Arts Council of Northern Ireland presented a major retrospective of Blackshaw’s work at the Ormeau Baths, Belfast, which was then exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) in Dublin and the Crawford Municipal Gallery in Cork, before a selection of the works were toured in the US.
The early 2000s saw Blackshaw experimenting with a more minimalist style to produce his ‘Windows’ series, featuring largely blanked-out windows covering large canvasses, and paintings such as ‘Corner of a room’, a near-monochrome rendering of peeling walls and a bare floor. In 2001 he was the recipient of the Glen Dimplex/Irish Museum of Modern Art award for sustained contribution to the visual arts in Ireland, and celebrations of his work continued in 2002 with a major retrospective hosted by the Ulster Museum. In 2003 his long-time supporter, the art critic Eamonn Mallie, published Blackshaw, an impressive 200 colour-plate volume with commentaries from Mallie, fellow art critic Brian Fallon and gallery owner Jamshid Mirfenderesky. The earliest work featured in the book is from 1944, when the artist was just twelve. Of his early 2000s output, Brian McAvera observed that Blackshaw had ‘moved decisively, and unexpectedly into a magisterial late flowering’, characterised by increased freedom in painterly gesture and a ‘happy disregard for notions of unity or stylistic convention. Blackshaw, just like late Picasso, has negotiated a return to that blessed state of childhood – serious play’ (McAvera, 2002).
Blackshaw was also an accomplished portrait artist, if somewhat dismissive of the genre. He claimed in one interview that ‘To me now, portrait painting is a nuisance. I paint portraits for money’ (McAvera, 2002), though he did admit liking his painting of former Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby (qv), as well as enjoying working on his portrait of Mary Robinson, completed during her tenure as president of Ireland. Art critic Brian Fallon praised Blackshaw’s portraiture for its consistency of style throughout the artist’s long, multi-period career: ‘if Blackshaw had painted nothing but portraits, he would still rank as a very good painter’ (Fallon, 2012). Over the years Blackshaw’s subjects included Brian Friel, John Hume (d. 2020), writer Jennifer Johnston, poet Michael Longley, John Armstrong (qv), archbishop of Armagh, art collector Vincent Ferguson (qv) and arts administrator Ted Hickey (qv).
THIRD PERIOD, DEATH AND LEGACY
Blackshaw’s output began to slow by the end of the 2000s and into the 2010s, as he entered what critics termed his ‘third period’. Described by later curators as ‘remarkably vital images, scratched out on surfaces that resemble parchment or plaster rather than canvas’ (RHA, 2013), his new work made a rare trip abroad for an exhibition at the Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris in summer 2006, and in September 2008 the Fenton Gallery, Cork, opened an exhibition of fifteen new paintings including ‘Pram’, ‘Zebra’ and ‘Bird cage’. Work from this third period also featured in the last major retrospective of his lifetime, presented in late 2012 at the F. E. McWilliam Gallery and Studio, Banbridge, Co. Down, before going to the RHA in Dublin in January 2013. Marking his eightieth birthday, this retrospective featured fifty paintings chosen by the artist from throughout his sixty-year career, including an early painting titled ‘Anna on the sofa’, portraits of ‘great’ men and intimate friends, his most famous horse paintings (‘The fall’ and ‘Dolly’), and his playful ‘Big brown dog’ and ‘Gawky cockerel’.
Aged eighty-three, Blackshaw gave his first, and only, television interview in 2015 for his friend Eamonn Mallie’s documentary about him, ‘An edge of society man’. Mallie chose this title to reflect that Blackshaw ‘gravitated, most of his life, towards people on the edge of society: Travellers, doggy men, horsey men’, and that he painted ‘what other people wouldn’t paint’ (deVeres commentary, 2020). The documentary was broadcast on BBC2 Northern Ireland in January 2016.
Blackshaw engendered considerable loyalty and good will from curators, critics and fellow artists, despite being an enigmatic and somewhat reclusive figure. He was variously described as warm and affable; clever and mischievous, with a wicked sense of humour; and chronically shy of media or other attention (he rarely attended other artist’s opening nights and instead would view their work quietly away from the crowds). He was also known for his generosity to younger artists.
An academician of the RUA, an inaugural member of Aosdána (elected 1981), and honorary member of the RHA (elected 1995), Blackshaw is widely regarded as the most important Irish painter of his generation. His work, however, is not well-known outside Ireland’s art circles, due in part to the artist’s lack of interest in self-promotion or in the financial side of art. The Irish Times art critic Aidan Dunne attributed Blackshaw’s unique position in the Irish art world to his being ‘a perennial outsider, a one-off individualist who is grandly indifferent to artistic fashion’ (Irish Times, 8 Dec. 2003). While displaying significant international influences, his paintings are deeply rooted in his home counties of Antrim and Down, and despite his work going in and out of favour during his long career, his lively, enthusiastic and experimental approach to painting ensured his continuing relevance, even in his final years. In one of his rare interviews, Blackshaw said that he did not have an artistic ‘process’ and never worked things out intellectually, but that his paintings ‘are all about that notion of the sensation … To me the excitement of painting is that you can never know where it’s coming from. You can't go out looking for it. It can happen with a word, a glimpse, or an abstract feeling. Painting to me is just living’ (McAvera, 2002).
After years of declining health Basil Blackshaw died in his sleep on 2 May 2016, survived by his daughter and his partner Helen Falloon. A humanist funeral celebration was held at Roselawn Crematorium in Belfast on 9 May 2016. His last work was an unfinished portrait of photographer and radio broadcaster Bobbie Hanvey.
Blackshaw’s works can be found in the collections of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, Arts Council of Ireland, Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery, Irish Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, Ulster Museum, University College Cork and University of Ulster. A sensitively rendered portrait of Basil Blackshaw by Colin Davidson, whose work bears the mark of the older artist’s influence, is in the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's collection.